A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 34


“There comes a point during the course of the war when the people, especially those in the comparative safety of the towns, have to be informed in no uncertain terms who is going to be the master.”

–Sir Robert G. K. Thompson, No Exit From Vietnam

Intelligence Office, UEPF Spirit of Peace, in Orbit over Terra Nova

The map showed on a screen darkened to indicate that it was night time below. Even then, there were glowing marks, red and white, blue and green and yellow, to indicate activity down there.

Khan, the husband, was there, posted by the screen, as was one of his assistants, Commander Spiro.

Khan said, “High Admiral, you wanted to know when or if the Balboans–or, more technically, their Santa Josefinan troops–began moving out of the little enclave they built at that bite in the border. They have. It’s only patrols but there are a lot of them, they subdivide as they move forward, and they seem pretty aggressive. They’re also moving faster than I usually see them move at night in that kind of terrain. It’s like they have a long way to go before morning.”

Wallenstein leaned back against a desk affixed to the deck, crossed her arms, and stared intently at the screen. “Have we,” she asked, “figured out where they’re heading?”

Commander Spiro answered. “There’s no obvious terrain features they’re shooting for, or, at least, no contiguous set of them. I have, on the other hand, made a guess of where they’ll be–or could be–by dawn, based on their speed.” Spiro touched some button or other and suddenly an irregular arc appeared on the screen, in red. “They’re not going past that, anyway.”

“They’re . . . what’s that term when a force on the ground sends out patrols to report but not necessarily to fight?” she asked.

“Screen,” Khan replied. “And, yes, that’s my surmise. But is the screen to defend the base they constructed or to cover and provide warning for a movement out?”

“What’s going on inside their base?”

Khan shook his head. “No clue. We could keep fairly close track of them in Balboa, but they did something in their enclave before we noticed they were moving that makes it nigh impossible to sense anything. They were using their radios fairly liberally in Balboa, and kept up a similar level of chatter from the same locations during their move. Frankly, they fooled us there. What they did to the enclave they moved into . . . well, I think they put something in the trees to defeat radar, probably whatever they did in Balboa, and there isn’t much heavy equipment to triangulate off. Also, go figure, the skimmers can’t see much of anything through the jungle canopy. And, though I put some effort into trying to intercept their radio communications, they haven’t uttered a single electronic peep.

“Moreover . . .” The intelligence officer stopped short as the screen began to provide a series of Vs moving east out of the area marked as their encampment. “Okay, well it’s not just a screening line.” He did some quick number crunching in his head, even as more and more Vs appeared. “Okay, they’ve got what looks dense enough on the ground to be a main force battalion, moving to take that town…”–Khan hesitated briefly–” . . . San Jaba.”

“If you can’t intercept the Balboans’ communications in Santa Josefina, what about the Tauran forces there? Marciano’s headquarters?”

“Now theirs we can intercept and decrypt. Not a peep, rather, nothing out of the routine. They’re not aware of the movement out, as far as I can tell, though they’ve known at least a little something about the base for a while now. They probably worried about it no more than we did, having enough problems not to want to borrow trouble.”

Marguerite began tapping her nose with her right index finger, middle and ring fingertips pressed to her lips. Reaching a decision, she said, “Get Esma and issue her a communicator. Have my barge take her down to Aserri, in Santa Josefina. I want the embassy there to get her put in touch with General Marciano and act as a liaison with him, feeding him intelligence reports from us.”

“Why not just have me break into the radio net?” Khan asked.

“Two reasons. One is that I don’t want our enemies–nor even our friends–to know we can. The other is that I don’t want to trip the Federated States’ paranoia switch by seeming directly to help the Taurans there.”

Khan nodded. “I’ll also notify the embassy in Aserri to make a car and driver, plus security escort available to Esma. But we shouldn’t use your barge. Instead we should use whichever one makes the normal mail and supply run.”

“Good. Do it that way.”

“There’s something else, too, High Admiral. Listen.”

Khan touched a spot on his screen and a voice began to speak, in Spanish. He let it run briefly, then stopped it, saying, “That seems to be just a meteorological message.” He then started an automatic audio translation program and advanced the recording. The small speaker brought forth, “Terra Nova, Terra Nova, this is Radio Balboa calling to our friends around the world. We have the following notifications and messages: Bellona is made of green cheese. I say again, Bellona is made of green cheese. Tilly has a very tight orifice. I say again, Tilly has a very tight orifice. Colin salts his friend’s penis before eating it . . .”

Khan stopped the recording. “It’s troublesome. This has been going on since the Zhong landed on the mainland. We have no idea who the messages are for, nor what they may mean.”

“Why not?” Wallenstein asked.

“They all seem to be one offs, meant for one recipient or a small group. And they never repeat. We think many of them, too, are purely spurious, meaning nothing to anybody, but we don’t know that.”

United Earth Embassy, Aserri, Santa Josefina

It was past dawn before the shuttle touched down on a broad green lawn. Five of the uniformed security staff met it at the landing pad. The senior of those guards slapped the side of the shuttle, hard, and told the pilot to take off immediately. Meanwhile the other three, trying to surround Esmeralda on all four sides, began to hustle her at a near run, out of the open and into the main building.

The last one to enter the building was the sergeant in charge, also bearing Esma’s overnight bag. He slammed the heavy door behind him and then directed the rest of his crew to take Esma deeper into the building for safety. In was at about that time that she realized the windows were all sandbagged.

She stopped, nonplussed. “What has been . . .”

The sergeant’s accent said he was local. “Snipers and mortar fire, ma’am, almost daily for the last couple of weeks. We haven’t lost anybody but we can’t afford to lose one–you–now either. Sorry for the rough and ready treatment.”

“It’s okay, sergeant. Needs must and all. I had no idea things have gotten this bad here. Certainly, the high admiral doesn’t know.”

Rather than answer in words, the sergeant flicked his eyes in the direction of the ambassador’s officer.

“Oh, I see.” Esma sighed, then asked, “If this place is under effective attack at all hours, how do I get out of the compound and to General . . .”

The sergeant shook his head. “It isn’t all the time. There’s been several lulls every day. The next one due is when the local staff reports in, which will be in about an hour. We can slip you out then. It’s going to have to be in a plain, unarmored car though.

“Most of the city–most of the country, in fact, all of it that doesn’t have anything to do with us or the Taurans–is actually pretty quiet and safe, ma’am. You’ll be fine once you’re half a kilometer from us.”


Esma caught sight of her friend, Estefani Melendez, the ambassador’s private secretary, as she was seen to her overnight quarters. Estefani, “Stefi” to Esma, ran to greet her, throwing both arms around the Earth girl and kissing both cheeks.

“Isn’t it awful?” said the Santa Josefinan girl. “It’s like it isn’t even my country anymore around here. Did you know they’ve tried to suborn even me? Really, they cornered me on my way to work, two of them, and demanded I give them a list of embassy personnel. I refused, of course.”

“How is it away from the embassy?” Esma asked.

“About the same as always. It’s only here . . .” She let the words trail before asking, brightly, “Will you be here long? Can we maybe escape this prison and go have lunch or go shopping someplace safe?”

“Maybe when I come back through,” Esma answered.